If you haven’t seen “College Kids Say the Darndest Things,” a recent video released by the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), check it out. You will either laugh or weep.
Joseph Backholm, the executive director of FPIW, interviewed eight students from the University of Washington about gender identity. Backholm, a white, 5′ 9″ male, asked the students what they would say if he told them he was a female. Every student was quick to say it would be okay.
Backholm then asks the students a series of questions that lead to him identifying as a 6’5” Chinese woman. Although a few of the students were a bit hesitant to affirm Backholm’s assertion that he is 6′ 5″, Chinese, and female, they concluded it would be within his right to identify as he pleases.
One young woman summed up the apparent attitude of the others: “I feel like that’s not my place as, like, another human to say someone is wrong or to draw lines or boundaries.”
How did we get here? The answer is, our culture has adopted what philosophers Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl call “I Say” relativism. (Read their book, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.)
“I Say” relativism holds that truth—i.e., what is real—is what each individual judges to be true. As U.S. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 1992 landmark case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In other words, in “I Say” relativism the individual determines what is real rather than discovers what is real.
What can we say in response?
First, as I demonstrated in a previous blog post, “Is It True that There is No Truth?”, the claim that truth is relative is incoherent. The claim “There is no absolute truth” is itself an absolute claim. It is tantamount to saying, “It is absolutely true there is no absolute truth.” Plain absurdity!
If the relativist responds, “The claim ‘There is no absolute truth’ is only relatively true,” he still is making an absolute claim, because the verb is necessarily implies a statement about what is objectively real. It suggests conformity to reality, because the relativist suggests the statement ‘There is no absolute truth’ really is relatively true. But this is the same thing as saying, “It’s absolutely true that there is no absolute truth,” which as we saw is a contradiction.
Furthermore, the claim becomes trivial. For the relativist to say the statement ‘There is no absolute truth’ is relatively true for him means it happens to be a member of his personal set of beliefs and opinions.
By saying his belief that relativism is true is among his personal beliefs and opinions, the relativist is implying such a belief is not among the personal beliefs and opinions of non-relativists. It amounts to saying, “I don’t myself believe in absolute truth, but other people do.” But this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Thus, it’s trivial.
Moreover, if the relativist’s belief in relativism is only a member of his set of personal beliefs and opinions, then it has no bearing on reality. It is a mere personal taste or preference, and thus we are not obliged to pay any attention to it. Once again, the claim becomes trivial.
Catwoman? Why not?
A second way to respond to “I Say” relativism is to show the absurdities of the logic.
We already see in the FPIW video what this “logic” leads to: the acceptance of a 5’9” white man’s claim to be a 6’5” Chinese woman. However, as the video shows, many don’t see the absurdity of the claim.
Perhaps they would see the absurdity of the logic if Backholm asked them, “What if I say I am a cat?” or “What if I say I am a dog?” Lest you think such claims are outside the realm of possibility, consider the story of 20-year-old Nano from Oslo, Norway, a young woman who claims she is a cat trapped in a human body. As she explains in an interview with a Norway reporter, she was “born in the wrong species.”
Now, you may say, “Nano is simply putting on a show to get attention.” My response is, “Why not apply the same line of thought to Bruce Jenner [a popular American male, now named Caitlyn], who identifies as a female)?” Why is the claim to be a cat so absurd that it must be an attempt at notoriety, but a man’s claim to be a woman is not? If nature has no bearing on the absurdity of a man claiming to be a woman, then why should nature have any bearing on the absurdity of a woman’s claim to be a cat?
I would also respond that Nano’s claim is not unique. There’s an actual psychological disorder called species dysphoria. It manifests itself in either a person thinking of oneself as an actual animal or excessive concern that one’s body is of the wrong species.
Furthermore, whether Nano is pretending or really believes she is a cat is beside the point. The logic of “I Say” relativism permits such an absurd claim. As my friend and fellow apologist Matt Fradd wrote recently:
Why stop at sex? If we’re not defined by our bodies, why should we impose the social construction of “species” upon our children? If we can say, “Well, he looks male, but he’s apparently female,” we can say with equal logic, “Well, he looks human, but he says he’s a panther” or “a parrot.”
“I Say” relativism has no ground on which it can differentiate between someone rejecting one’s genetic makeup for the sake of redefining his species and someone rejecting one’s genetic makeup for the sake of redefining his sex. If we accept transgenderism, then the logic of relativism demands we accept transpeciesism.
The absurdities that follow from “I Say” relativism continue. Consider the story of Chloe Jennings-White, a Ph.D. with degrees from Cambridge and Stanford universities who suffers from Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a psychological condition wherein people want to have one of their limbs amputated or become paraplegic. Jennings-White wants to be a paraplegic and identifies herself as “disabled,” using leg braces and a wheelchair, even though her legs function properly. In interviews she has stated if she had the funds she would have surgery to cut her sciatic and femoral nerves in order to paralyze her legs.
Should we support Jennings-White in the same way our culture has supported Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner? If it’s okay for a man to undergo surgical procedures that conform his body to his desired identity, why couldn’t a woman undergo surgical procedures that conform her body to her desired identity? What difference is there between Jenner’s desire to be transgender and Jennings-White’s desire to be transable? If our culture is to be consistent in the “I Say” relativism that approves Bruce Jenner’s actions, then our culture would also have to approve Chloe Jennings-White desired actions.
The absurdities of “I Say” relativism go on and on. There is no limit to what the individual cannot define as reality. Whether it’s gender, species, age, or even physical conditions, everything goes in “I Say” relativism.
Morality out the window
A third and final response to “I Say” relativism is it obviates morality.
For the “I Say” relativist, morals are a matter of personal definition—something is right or wrong only if the individual deems it so. But if this is true, then it’s impossible to object on moral grounds to any behavior, as long as the individual deems it right. How can we blame a murderer if he thinks his actions are morally permissible? How can we blame a rapist if he believes forcing sexual activity on a woman is good for him? If “I Say” relativism is true, then the answer to both questions is, “We can’t!” As Dr. Peter Kreeft says:
He [moral absolutist] alone can say to a Hitler, “You and your whole social order are wrong and wicked and deserve to be destroyed.” The relativist could only say, “Different strokes for different folks, and I happen to hate your strokes and prefer mine, that’s all.”
But the question arises, “If morality is merely a matter of personal opinion, then whose opinion wins the day when they conflict?” The only answer can be one with the most power. “I Say” relativism inevitably leads to might makes right.
The late American philosopher Allan Bloom observed, “[T]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (The Closing of the American Mind I, 25).
The FPIW video is cause for alarm because it raises the question, “If those being trained to be the future leaders of our country aren’t able to draw a line on an observable reality as simple as someone’s height, ethnicity, and gender, how will they discern truths from lies on other issues that matter, such as how we should treat other human beings and even ourselves?” The answer is they won’t—at least, not if they continue to espouse relativism.
By embracing relativism our culture has reached the point of insanity. There can be no false perception of reality because there is no reality to perceive—only a reality to create. Can our society function with such a worldview? It’s doubtful.